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What’s working? What’s not?

Researchers and advocates are trying to better understand why more Philadelphia students are graduating.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The on-time high school graduation rate in Philadelphia has risen from 52 to 65 percent over the last eight years. A new report shows that the most rapid progress has been among traditionally at-risk groups including Black males, Hispanics, students in foster care, and those involved in the juvenile justice system.

The improvement, much of which occurred during a period of shrinking District resources, coincided with the work of Project U-Turn. That is the city’s longstanding and multifaceted project to stem the tide of students who drop out of school by ramping up and coordinating services they need. The general rise in graduation rates mirrors an increase nationwide over the same period, but not all urban areas showed gains.

In the latest report growing out of the project, researchers analyzed individual student data from seven cohorts of first-time 9th graders, beginning with the class that started high school in 2002 and continuing through the class that started high school in 2008. The goal was to provide more detailed information on what had been driving the increases and gain insights into which initiatives and policies were effective.

Researchers also measured yearly dropout rates. They found that fewer students are dropping out at all stages of high school and that more dropouts seek alternative ways to earn a diploma.

“Today we have 2,000 fewer students dropping out compared to eight years ago, and of those who do drop out, more than ever before, they are successfully re-engaged in some alternative pathway,” said Mayor Nutter in a statement. Nutter has made increasing graduation rates a major objective of his administration. “That’s 2,000 young people now who have many more doors open to them.”

Nutter had set as a target a six-year graduation rate of 80 percent. That rate is now 70 percent.

Although, he said, “it is tremendous to see that we are starting to figure out how to support our most vulnerable and underserved young people,” he also noted that “we have a long way to go to close the gaps.”

Superintendent William Hite said a big lesson from the new report is the importance of “supportive services outside the traditional classroom setting” to the success of the city’s youth. More are needed, he said, especially for groups like English language learners.

Increased cooperation

Project U-Turn is a collaboration among the District, government, the courts, foundations, advocacy groups, and families, designed to improve educational outcomes for city students. One of the key components is increased cooperation and data-sharing among the District, the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS), the state Department of Health, and family and juvenile courts.

Examples are the District’s Re-engagement Center and an Education Support Center at DHS. A task force meets every other month to share data, compare notes, and track services, while work groups on specific problems meet more frequently.

Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN), which coordinates Project U-Turn, said that Philadelphia is breaking down government and agency silos that often hindered effective interventions for students and families.

Fulmore-Townsend pointed at graduation-rate gains among groups that had all but been written off in the past, such as children in foster care. These young people frequently move from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school, and they have suffered from neglect or abuse.

Before the coordination of services brought about by Project U-Turn, barely 25 percent of children in foster care graduated from high school. Now, their graduation rate is above 40 percent – still very low, but a major improvement.

The numbers of students in such high-risk groups are significant. About 20 percent of city students, one in five, have some involvement with DHS, the juvenile justice system, or both.

“We are pleased with this report, as it shows dramatic improvements in graduation across all levels of participation among DHS-involved youth,” said DHS Commissioner Vanessa Garrett Hartley. “We still have more work to do because despite these large gains for our youth, their graduation rates continue to lag far behind.”

DHS has stationed some caseworkers in schools and is getting ready to move its Education Support Center to District headquarters.

Beyond agency-involved youth, there are still major gaps in graduation rates among ethnic groups and between males and females. But groups that lagged furthest behind – Black boys and Hispanic boys and girls – made the biggest gains (see chart, p. 17).

Adolescent mothers showed less improvement, but even their graduation rate jumped by 12 percentage points. Young mothers, however, still have about half the chance of graduating as female students who don’t give birth during their school-age years.

“This is a long haul, but we’re chipping at it,” said Fulmore-Townsend, of PYN.

The latest report, called “A Promise Worth Keeping: Advancing the High School Graduation Rate in Philadelphia,” is a follow-up to the 2006 study “Unfulfilled Promise” that catalogued the scope of the dropout crisis in the city. The new study was compiled by researchers at the Policy Lab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

Understanding the improvements

Fulmore-Townsend said that the gains described reflect more attention being paid to early warning indicators – absenteeism, low grades, and early disciplinary problems.

“I think schools are using data in important ways to identify young people who are struggling,” she said. “There’s a movement to put data in the hands of parents and help them understand” the importance of regular attendance.

Now, “early warning indicators are a norm in Philadelphia conversations about how a young person is progressing in their education path, and interventions have been developed,” said Cynthia Figueroa, PYN board chair and CEO of the social service agency Congreso, which works in the Hispanic community. The progress that has been made in getting students to stay in school or re-engage after leaving is due to the “laser focus on the issue, with multiple partners.”

Another movement that is having an effect is a changed approach to discipline in schools, Fulmore-Townsend said. It is far less common now to suspend students for days or even weeks at a time for bad behavior – a policy that historically undermined the whole attendance effort and alienated students from school. Ninth-grade suspensions have declined by a third, according to the report.

Instead, there is an emphasis on restorative justice, a policy that focuses on getting students to take responsibility for their behavior and make amends.

“I’ve seen a lot of change and reform in this area,” Fulmore-Townsend said.

Hite also touted this approach as important to keep students away from the juvenile justice system.

In general, though, Fulmore-Townsend emphasized, there is no magic bullet.

“This is a really complex problem,” she said. “Young people are not homogeneous. The reasons for them leaving school are diverse. We have to customize solutions to adapt to the needs that young people have.”

And those needs are many. Several re-engaged students interviewed by the Notebook described depressing experiences in neighborhood high schools – fights, failing class, truancy – and varying degrees of help they received, or didn’t, from teachers, judges, caseworkers, and other adults.

Now, unlike in the past, people from the District, DHS, family court and juvenile court, if applicable, sit in a common space to discuss a child’s needs.

“We have a table with mutual accountability and a common agenda, data metrics for progress, and a place for people to leverage resources and craft solutions together,” she said.

That cooperation benefited Shawnese Smith, 18.

Smith said she got into a fight at Germantown High School in 9th grade that landed her in court. The judge let her off, but after the incident, she was put in foster care and transferred to Benjamin Franklin High School for sophomore year.

“But that’s when I got pregnant with my second child,” she said. She left school entirely after her son was born that April.

Over the summer, however, her DHS caseworker took her to YESPhilly, an alternative program on North Broad Street, where she feels at home and found people who care about her.

“I’m learning about my self-worth,” she said.

She hopes to get a diploma in August. But for Smith and other students, the future is still precarious.

What needs to change

Project U-Turn’s key strategy has been to re-engage students through an array of alternative programs, including “accelerated” schools like YESPhilly, in which students who are over-age and have few credits can regain focus, get work skills, and earn a diploma. The data show that the proportion of dropouts who re-engage, most in alternative settings, grew modestly over six years – from 47 percent to 54 percent.

But only 35 percent of the re-engaged students persist to getting a diploma – and that figure didn’t go up for the cohorts studied.

“While the re-engagement programs successfully pulled more dropouts back in, the programs may not have provided the students with effective ways of achieving a high school diploma,” the report said.

Figuring out why is a next step. Figueroa, of Congreso, worried that the decimation of the District’s Re-engagement Center is taking a toll.

“A fully staffed Re-engagement Center is critical,” she said. “Often, kids can get linked to the wrong option.”

But Taylor Frome, executive director of YESPhilly, says that students are coming to her program with more problems than ever.

“Poverty rates are getting worse and worse, and resources for families are getting worse and worse,” she said. “Homelessness is higher, and it seems that more students are victims of crime or are being arrested.”

She suggested that students aren’t succeeding at greater rates in accelerated schools “because pretty big stuff is going on in their neighborhoods and their lives.”

Isaiah Johnson, 18, certainly had a lot going on in his life. He described himself as angry and bad-tempered from an early age and said he stayed in middle school only to play chess. For high school, he bounced from cyber school to University City to truancy to a Christian academy where, he said, he didn’t learn anything. A friend of his mother’s suggested YouthBuild, a charter school for students who are trying to reconnect.

“I’m like, ‘this is the last opportunity I can get,’” he remembers thinking. “This is what I need to do.”

In the last year, he said, six people close to him have died, including two uncles who were father figures. But people at YouthBuild supported him through this and gave him skills and a purpose.

“When I got to YouthBuild, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said. “I just knew I liked to work with my hands.” Now he is on track to graduate in August with certification in building maintenance, and he then plans to attend a technical school for carpentry and West Chester University for graphic design.

While Johnson has plans after graduation, most students don’t. Enrollment in postsecondary institutions has not kept pace with the graduation-rate increases. Just 38 percent of 9th graders from 2008 had enrolled in a two- or four-year college by April 2014.

Finances are a big issue, but so is preparation.

“A lot of progress has been made in connecting young people to postsecondary options, but there is more progress to be made in terms of supporting the academic content they need to succeed there,” said Fulmore-Townsend.

Figueroa suggests that neighborhood high schools, which most District high school students attend, are a major contributing factor to this problem. While some are improving, those in the very poorest neighborhoods still post high dropout rates and produce graduates unprepared for careers or college. She is urging more “community-based solutions” and “joint strategies” between the city and District for these schools.

Hite and Figueroa brought up another issue that they said is not being given sufficient attention: older youth and the lack of jobs. A study by Drexel University economist Paul Harrington found that Philadelphia has one of the lowest rates for teen employment in the nation; among Black teens, just one in 10 had a job.

“The best engagement for these young people is work experiences that also engage them in a learning environment,” Hite said. The District is opening several new high schools designed to forestall dropping out that rely heavily on hands-on learning and apprenticeships.

Combining efforts is especially crucial in a city that has the highest rate of poverty, and of deep poverty, among the nation’s biggest cities. The May report “Building a Grad Nation,” by America’s Promise Alliance and other organizations, found that in 2013, the national graduation rate hit a high of 81 percent. The gains were attributed to changes in government policy and school reform rather than to general economic improvement.

Although that was heartening, Hite said, “We still have a lot more work to do.”

Editor’s note: The print version of this story incorrectly used a photo of a student that was not Shawnese Smith.

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